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Climbing Everest... it's just what the doctor ordered


Dr Clare O'Leary

Dr Clare O'Leary

Dr Clare O'Leary

THEY say the bold adventurer succeeds the best.

Dr Clare O'Leary has accomplished many things – but she is also not afraid to fail.

She was the first Irish woman to scale Mount Everest, the first female to make the arduous trek to the South Pole and is now tackling Kilimanjaro in memory of mountaineer Ian McKeever.

But Dr O'Leary (40) says that reaching the geographic North Pole on foot eludes her.

The daughter of Alice and Kevin O'Leary, motor group owners from Bandon, Dr O'Leary has two brothers and one sister and said that they always had an outdoor lifestyle.

A family tragedy led to the Cork woman's decision to follow the long path to becoming a doctor.

"It was an interest I had in medicine. I started in being interested in cancer when my uncle died from lung cancer when I was young," she said.

"I wanted to know why he got it, how it developed. I had a hunger for information and then wanted to use it to try and help people."

That same hunger for information developed into an appetite for extreme adventure at a very young age.

"I was always into the outdoors and as time went on, I wanted to do more, to take on more things," Dr O'Leary said.

"I love seeing new places, meeting people from different cultures.

"All of these trips are very different in their own way."

The daring climber said that she constantly sets herself new challenges – in work and in her hobbies.

A patron of the CUH Charity, Dr O'Leary trained and worked at the Cork University Hospital for over 10 years.

She is now a specialist in gastroenterology, but said that it is in the unforgiving climates and remote places of the world that she feels at home.

The doctor says that she enjoys the "isolation" away from the demands of a busy hospital and the survival demands in the wild.

Dr O'Leary made her mark in history when she became the first Irish woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2004. It was a cruel turn of irony when the gastroenterologist was forced to turn back on the same attempt the previous year due to a stomach bug. But the illness made her more determined than ever to pursue and conquer this challenge.



She went on to become deputy leader of the first Irish Antarctic team to walk to the South Pole in 2008 along with Shaun Menzies, Jonathan Bradshaw and leader Pat Falvey.

Now along with fellow adventurer Mike O'Shea, they will lead an expedition to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro – 19,340ft – in Africa.

This will be Dr O'Leary's first expedition since she and Mr O'Shea successfully crossed the world's oldest and deepest lake – Lake Baikal in Siberia in March this year.

The duo were forced to abandon their journey to the North Pole in 2010 due to logistical reasons and they decided to turn back after experiencing four blizzards in one week.

On this same trek, the team found themselves in one particular nail-biting situation when a stationary ice field started to move, spin and break up underneath them.

At one point, it was only slush between them and the unforgiving Arctic Ocean.

"I had heard the clanking of ice periodically, but I didn't realise it was breaking up so close to us until we were actually in the middle of it," she said.

And Dr O'Leary said it is the one adventure that she still wants to conquer.

"The North Pole is the big one," she said.

It depends on two things – the ice conditions up north and the cost of it.

"In general we have sponsors from gear companies and equipment companies and my friends and family have been great too."

Ireland has its fair share of Antarctic and Arctic explorers, with Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean paving the way for generations of travellers.

However, Dr O'Leary can't exactly put her finger on why there are so many Irish adventurers.

"I don't know why that is. For a small country, we have contributed a lot historically when you look at it," she said.

"Maybe it is because we are an island nation."

Ireland lost two of its best adventurers in tragic incidents in recent years.

Ger McDonnell (37) died in an accident on K2 in 2008 and Ian McKeever (42) was killed in a lightning strike on Kilimanjaro in January this year.

Although these tragedies have not stopped Dr O'Leary and others from extreme exploration, she said it does stop them in their tracks.

"It is always very upsetting when a tragedy like that happens," she said.

"When you do go to those sort of trips, you don't think of things going wrong.

"What happened with Ian was a freak accident, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have happened anywhere."

Each trek take months of planning, organisation, training and fundraising.

In between this, there is little down time for holidays.



Despite her years of experience, Dr O'Leary believes it is possible for climbing novices to get fit enough to take on the Kilimanjaro challenge over nine days from September 12.

Although it is a serious trek that shouldn't be taken lightly, she said that an expedition is usually "good fun".

"If someone wants to do it, there is plenty of time now to do it," she said.

"If you are motivated enough it's possible. There is nothing stopping you."

Further information on the Kilimanjaro climb in aid of Cork University Hospital is available at www.cuhcharity.ie or www.kilimanjaroachievers. com.